U.C. report on Jewish campus climate: Results marginalize, misrepresent students critical of Israel

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has long been a controversial topic in the United States, especially on college campuses. Personal identity can influence how people view the conflict, causing some to assume that this discussion is, or should be, conducted strictly along ethno-religious lines. This assumption, however, has the potential to chill speech and push dissenters out of their communities. As a Jewish and African American student critical of Israeli policy and involved in Palestinian solidarity organizing at U.C. Santa Cruz, I experience this firsthand.

Since coming to UCSC, my ability to participate in Jewish student programming while active in the campus Committee for Justice in Palestine has met constant challenges. Last year, I was repeatedly subjected to abusive online comments by a staff member at a center for Jewish life because of my decision to be in CJP and participate in Jewish student programming. This is not the only time I’ve been targeted, and I’m not the only Jewish student to experience something like this. Unfortunately, recent steps by the University of California to “improve campus climate” appear poised to make this situation even worse.

On July 9, U.C. President Mark Yudof’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion presented the “University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact-Finding Team Report & Recommendations.” Authored by Rick Barton of the Anti-Defamation League and Alice Huffman of the California NAACP, it is ostensibly based on testimony from meetings with Jewish students at six U.C. campuses. I was part of a Jewish student panel that discussed the report when it was released, and had no choice but to dispute much of its findings.

I was present at the UCSC meeting in fall 2011 and discussed the difficulties of maintaining involvement in both CJP and my campus Jewish community. But upon receiving the report, I discovered my experiences, and those of other Jewish students critical of Israel, were almost entirely absent.

In fact, while the authors note there are some Jewish students involved in what they label “the anti-Zionism movement,” the document portrays Palestinian campus organizing as problematic, or even anti-Semitic by nature, often through unchecked generalizations.

For example, it states that “[t]he use of the swastika drawn next to, or integrated with, the Jewish Star of David” is “commonplace.” Palestinian students and their allies are aware of the meaning and history of that symbolism, and avoid using it; the notion that its use is “commonplace” at our events is false and offensive.

Even worse, many of the report’s recommendations call for policies that discriminate against speech dealing with Palestinian rights. The first recommendation in the document is that “UC should review its policies on University sponsorship and neutrality and develop model institutional protocols for such activities.” This proposal is followed by suggestions that the U.C. even consider prohibiting sponsorship of “Israeli Apartheid Week” events, a term used interchangeably with “Palestine Awareness” in the report. Several other recommendations also suggest limiting Palestinian speech. None of the proposals call for such conditions to be placed on “pro-Israel” events — nor would I urge that.

Equally disturbing is what is missing from the report. Several Jewish students and I gave Barton and Huffman articles written by UCSC students who feel the current Title VI complaint and federal investigation into “anti-Semitism” at our university is chilling criticism of Israeli policy. Despite this, the authors boldly claim that “the Team’s conversations with students revealed no such confusion or effort to curtail the First Amendment rights.”

When I attended the meeting at U.C. Santa Cruz in the fall of 2011, I hoped my participation would lead to better understanding of the diverse experiences of Jewish students. While I’m thankful I was given a chance to speak, after reading the final document, I am extremely disappointed. I believe that the authors of the report have failed in their mission to accurately and equitably represent the needs of all Jewish students, and the report is instead a platform to stifle Palestinian organizing on U.C. campuses. This may represent the wishes of some Jewish students supportive of current Israeli policy in Palestine, but it marginalizes and misrepresents many others.

In July I co-authored a letter with other concerned Jewish U.C. students asking President Yudof to table the problematic report and recommendations until a more equitable and accurate study could be completed.

I am glad that President Yudof has responded to our letter (“Report calls for regulating ‘hate speech’ at U.C.,” Aug. 10). However, many unanswered questions remain about the methodology the authors used in the report and the impact of its recommendations on the Palestinian student organizing that it brands as hate speech.

Rebecca Pierce studies film and digital media production at U.C. Santa Cruz, is part of the Committee for Justice in Palestine and has contributed to Leviathan Jewish Journal.